FRANKFORT — No, it’s not just your imagination — the rich are getting richer, in Kentucky and across the United States.

And the gap between the top and the 99 percent is growing: between 1979 and 2013, income for the top 1 percent in Kentucky rose 60.1 percent while it actually fell 2.6 percent for everyone else.

The picture isn’t unique to Kentucky — as the current presidential contest debates show.

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have made the frustrations of the non-wealthy centerpieces of their campaigns and it’s likely to be a point of debate between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the fall presidential election.

Nationally, in 2013 the top 1 percent made 25.3 times as much money as the average income of the 99 percent.

The data is from a report by the Economic Policy Institute which looks at income trends across states, counties and metropolitan areas.

In Kentucky, the top 1 percent makes 16.9 times more than the 99 percent: $619,585 versus the average for everyone else is $37,371. That’s an increase from 10.1 percent difference in 1979.

“Income equality has been a growing problem in Kentucky and the nation since the late 1970s,” said Anna Baumann, policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“It persists in relatively poor states like ours, both in big cities and in small towns, pointing to the widespread problem that those at the top are disparately benefiting from growth in our economy,” she continued.

The trend shows no sign of slowing down, either. According to the EPI report, the top 1 percent of income earners in Kentucky has captured 25 percent of the income growth during the recovery from the Great Recession.

Baumann said a number of factors have contributed to the growing income gap: the erosion of the buying power of the minimum wage over time; declining unionization in manufacturing industries; and the outsourcing of jobs which typically paid good middle income wages.

While productivity has slowed lately, she said, over the same period from 1979 to 2013, productivity increased while the income gap widened.

“Workers’ wages have not grown with productivity,” Bauman explained, “so the income generated by the increased productivity has gone more to corporate profits and to shareholders. It’s happening at both ends of the income spectrum.”

Baumann said Kentucky needs to consider meaningful tax reform as one strategy to combat the trend, but tax reform means different things to different parties.

Calls for tax reform are as predictable in the Kentucky General Assembly as the change in seasons, but summoning the political will to enact it or finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans aren’t easy to accomplish.

Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, has for several years introduced tax reform legislation which would lower taxes on the lower income groups while boosting it for the upper income brackets.

But Republicans — including Gov. Matt Bevin — support what they call “consumption taxes” and the rest of us know as sales taxes. They say that will lead to more investment by business and industry, creating more jobs and widening the tax base.

That would be counterproductive, Baumann thinks, because it’s a regressive tax taking up a larger percentage of low wage earners’ incomes.

And because the income growth has been concentrated at the top, shifting the burden downward, Baumann said, is likely to produce less tax revenue over time.

The gap exists all across Kentucky but its size varies by counties. Kenton County in northern Kentucky has the largest gap: $1,063,858 average for the top 1 percent; $48,619 for the rest, nearly 22 times less than the top.

But that’s also relative. Robertson County has the smallest gap — $152,637 versus $26,076 — about six times smaller but still only a bit more than half of the average wage for the 99 percent in Kenton County.

Here are some other selected counties:

• Laurel County: top 1 percent, $398,174, 13.9 times greater than $28,633 for 99 percent;

• Madison County: top 1 percent, $431,428, 11.7 times greater than $36,927 for 99 percent;

• Pulaski County: top 1 percent, $462,906, 17 times greater than $27,227 for 99 percent.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.

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